Friday, March 09, 2018

As If Mathematics Was Coded Into Our Genes

The young two-year-old had carried the plastic bears halfway across the room to show me. "Blue bears," he said, holding them in front of his own eyes.

I said, "Two blue bears."

He looked from one to the other, then pushed them a bit closer to me as if to say, Look at them. I said again, "Two blue bears." He looked from one to the other again, then held them closer together, right in front of his eyes. There was something else he wanted to say about these bears, but he was struggling to find the words.

"You are really looking at those bears."

He said, "Blue bears, " and pushed them toward my eyes as if asking me to really look as well. I really looked. I said, "You are showing me two blue bears. One of them is darker blue and one of them is lighter blue."

He looked at them, examining them, then shoved them toward me again. I said, "You are showing me two blue bears that are different shades of blue." That's when he smiled. "Different," he said, "Blue bears different." He then took them back with him halfway across the room.

I followed him to where the kids were playing with the little plastic bears, plastic baskets, and water. One boy held an empty basket. He picked up a bear as it floated past, putting it in his basket. He beamed at me as I knelt beside him, so I replied, "You put a bear in your basket." He put another bear in his basket, then another, each time, smiling at me. When he put the fourth bear in the basket he told me, "More." I answered, "You have more bears in your basket."

He then added another and another, each time telling me, "More," "More," "More."

Later, I was learning over the top of some cabinets, watching the two-year-olds playing with our wooden trains. Children were queuing their train cars up, the way one does, one after another. A girl shouted, "Teacher Tom, look at my long train!" I looked at it. She connected another car and shouted, "Teacher Tom, my train is longer!" I nodded. She added another and another, each time proclaiming it longer until there were no more train cars in her immediate vicinity. She then announced, "It's the longest!"

I was still learning across the shelves when another girl brought me one of the wooden trees that came with one of the intermixed train sets we own. She set it in front of me. I said, "You brought me a tree." She picked up another tree. I said, "Now I have two trees." Then another. "Now I have three threes." And another. "Now I have four trees." The trees were of different colors, shapes and manufactures, but they were all trees. The she then added a small traffic sign. I looked at her in mock confusion and she laughed and laughed at the math prank she'd just pulled on me.

This is what preschool mathematics looks like in a play-based environment. It is not an academic pursuit, but rather a truly intellectual one, even a joyful one, something every child pursues as if it was coded into her genes. And indeed, it is.

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